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Sergei Esenin (spelled also Yesenin) / b. Sept. 21, 1895 [Oct. 3, New Style] - d. 1925

 

The "prodigal son" of Russian poetry, whose self-destructive life style and peasant origins marked his work throughout his relatively short career. Esenin died at the age of 30, tired of life and tired of poetry. His suicide in Leningrad triggered a wave of imitative suicides. Esenin became a myth and legend, and he is still one of the most beloved poets in his country.

"There are poets... who have their hour, Aseev, poor Klyuev –  liquidated – Sel'vinsky – even Esenin. They fulfill an urgent need of the day, their gifts are of crucial importance to the development of poetry in their country, and then they are no more." (Boris Pasternak in 'Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak' by Isiah Berlin, 1980)

Sergei Aleksandrovich Esenin (also transliterated Sergey Yesenin) was born in Konstantinovo (now Yesenino), into a peasant family of Old Believers, who were in Russia considered religious dissidents. Esenin was raised by his maternal grandparents. Already in his childhood, he started to compose verse. From 1904 to 1909, he attended the village school, and then the Spas-Klepiki church boarding school. During this period he started to write poetry seriously. Upon the advice of his teacher, he moved to Moscow to pursue his writing career. Esenin worked for a year in Sytin's printing house. He joined a group of peasant and proletarian poets, the "Surikov" circle, and occasionally he also attended lectures at Shaniavskii University. In 1913-15 he lived with Anna Izriadnova; they had one son. In 1917 he married Zinaida Raikh; they had one daughter and one son.

Esenin's first verse were published in the Moscow journal Mirok in 1914. He moved in 1915 to Petrograd, where he began to achieve fame in the literary salons. Among his acquaintances were Aleksandr Blok, Sergei Gorodetskii and the peasant poet Nikolai Kliuev, with whom he formed a close friendship. In his first collection of poems, Radunitsa (1916), Esenin wrote about traditional village life and the folk culture, the "wooden Russia" of his childhood, and his pantheistic belief in Nature. The title of the collection referred to a folk funeral ritual, the "Commemoration of the Dead". "They say I'll become an illustrious / Poet of Russia soon," Esenin predicted in 1917. In his early poems Esenin viewed the Russian countryside melancholically or romantically, and adopted the role of peasant prophet and spiritual leader. Esenin also composed poems with religious themes - his Christ was a defender of the poor and discriminated. The Soviet politician and literature theorist Leo Trotsky claimed that Esenin smelled of medievalism. On the other hand, Ilya Ehrenburg tells in his memoirs People, Years, Life (1960-65), that Maxim Gorky was deeply moved and cried when Esenin read him his poems.

In 1916-17 Esenin was in military service in Tsarskoe Selo but deserted from the army after the 1917 February Revolution. He returned to Moscow in 1918. Esenin was a founding member of the Imaginist movement, which shocked conservative critics with avant-garde poetry and playful blasphemy. He issued several volumes of verse, and contributed to a number of Imaginist collections. The Imaginist poet Anatolii Mariengof (1897-1962) became his friend; they shared the same apartment and wrote poems at the same table. Their life Mariengof chronicled in his memoir, Roman bez vra'ia (1927). Mariengof's only son, Kirill, committed suicide by hanging, like Esenin, in 1940.

Esenin hoped that the Revolution would lead to a better future for the peasantry, a new age, of which he crystallized his visions in Inoniya (1918). Later, in 'The Stern October Has Deceived Me', Esenin revealed his disappointment with the Bolsheviks. By the 1920 Esenin realized that he was "the last poet of the village". The long poetic drama Pugachyov (1922) was influenced the spirit of the time and glorified the 18th-century rebellious peasant leader. Confessions of a Hooligan (1921) revealed another side of Esenin's personality - provocative, vulgar, wounded, anguished. 'The Black Man' is considered Esenin's most ruthless analysis of his failures and alcoholic hallucinations.

After divorce in 1921, Esenin married in 1922 the famous American dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), who had opened a ballet school in Moscow. He followed her on tour to western Europe and the United States in 1922-23. He asked Isadora to translate his poems into English with the help of an interpreter, Lola Kinel who remembered: "I would tell the poem in simple prose sentences and she would try to put these into some rhythm. And always she tried to conceal her real disappointment. Yesenin was very sensitive where his poetry was concerned, and to hurt him would have been like hurting a child. . . ." (from The Collected Poems of Yesenin, translated by Gregory Brengauz, 2000)  

Mariengof has later written in an essay, that Isadora herself did not fascinate Esenin, but her fame. When he watched her devouring cold roast mutton, Esenin lost completely his own appetite. Their journey abroad was a disaster for Esenin, who wished that his poetry would be well-received. "Only abroad," wrote Esenin, "did I understand how great are the merits of the Russian Revolution which has saved the world from a horrible spirit of philistinism." From America Esenin did not find anything good but the fox-trot dance. In 1923 he returned to Russia, suffering from depression and hallucinations. According to Mariengof, during the journey Esenin became an alcoholic, and his determination to end his life turned manic: he threw himself in front of a local train, tried to jump from a window of a 5 store building, and hurt himself with a kitchen knife. In the cycle 'Liubov' khuligana' (1923) he took distance to his earlier anarchism, and relied on the healing power of love. Some of his most celebrated lyrics - addressed to his family and village - belong to this period. In these works Esenin's major theme was hopelessness. He used straightforward language, without the ornaments of his imaginist lyrics.

Don't waken the dream that is dying,
Don't stir the aim that has failed.
Life brought me too early to trial;
The loss, the defeat –  what availed?

(from 'Letter to my Mother' / 'Pismak materi', in Strana Sovetskaia, 1925)

During his last years Esenin became increasingly depressed and alcoholic. In 1922 he wrote: "It's prostitutes I read my poems to, / Bandits I toast in burning alcohol." His favorite café was "Pegasus Stall", the meeting place of Imaginist poets. While staying at the Hôtel Crillon in Paris with Isadora Duncan, he had another of his "momentary fits of madness" (Isadora in The Tribune of 28 February). "He wanted to go back [to Russia]," Isadora said, "so I sent him. . . . He can smash things up in Moscow and no one will care because he is a poet."

Some of the verses in Moskva kabatskaia (1924, Moscow of the taverns) were written abroad, but most of these pieces dealt with his bohemian life in taverns, prostitutes, crooks, and other social outcasts seeking consolation from alcohol and day dreams. Its concluding poem, 'I will not weep, regret or scold ...' has been praised as one of the greatest ever written in Russian. In 1924 he wrote also about the new society and revolution, and praised Lenin in Strana Sovetskaia (1925). However, as a poet of the Revolution, he never gained such fame as Maiakovskii, with whom he also quarreled.

Esenin broke with the Imaginists in 1924, and traveled in the Caucaus 1924-25. From this journey he produced the collection Persidskie motivy (1925). In 1925 he married Sof'ia Tolstaia, a granddaughter of Lev Tolstoy; the marriage was unhappy. Esenin also had a son in 1924 from a relationship with Nadezhda Vol'pin. He wrote poems during the one hour before dinner, when he was still "a human being", as Mariengof noted. "I still feel that I remain the poet / Of the timber cottages of yore," Esenin said in 1925.

In the late 1925 Esenin spent some time in a hospital for a nervous breakdown. He had left his wife and went to Leningrad, where he hanged himself in the Hotel d'Angleterre, on December 28, 1925. Before his death, Esenin slashed his wrists and wrote with his own blood his farewell in 'Do svidan'ia, drug moi, do svidan'ia': "In this life it is not new to die, / but neither it is new to be alive." Esenin used blood because the ink bottle in the room was dry. Soon after Esenin's death, a campaign was launched against him: like the ancient Athenian teacher and philosopher Socrates he was accused of corrupting the young. Communist authorities, who had viewed with suspicion Esenin's poetry and individualism - "hooliganism" - considered his work in conflict with the doctrines of the Socialist realism, and banned his books. Esenin was out of favor until after World War II. From the 1960s his works have been reprinted in several collections.

For further reading: Serge Ésénine (1895-1925): Savie et son oeuvre by Francisca de Graaff (1933); Sergej Esenin, Bilder- und Symbolwelt by C. Auras (1965); Sergej Esenin: A Biographical Sketch by Frances de Graaff (1966); Sergey Yesenin, lichnost, tvorchestvo, epokha by E. Naumov (1969); Sergei Esenin: Literaturnaja khronika 1-2 by V. Belousov (1969-70); Letters to Yesenin by Jim Harrison (1973); Sergey Esenin by C.V. Ponomareff (1978); Sergei Esenin: The Man, the Verse, the Age by Kathleen Cook (1979); Isabora and Esenin by Gordon McVay (1980); Sergei Esenin: Poet of the Crossroads by Lynn Visson (1980); Russian Imaginism 1919-1924 by Vladimir Markov (1980); Sergei Esenin: Zhizn i tvorchestvo by A.V. Kulinich (1980); Esenin: A Biography in Memoirs, Letters, and Documents, ed. by Jessie Davies (1982); The Poetic Soul of Russia: Sergei Esenin (1895-1925) by Jessie Davies (1995); Sergei Esenin: A Centenary Tribute by Gordon McVay (1998); Letters to Yesenin by Jim Harrison (2007) - Suom. Suomeksi on julkaistu Tarkoin valitut runot, suom. Olli Hyvärinen (2009)

Selected works:

  • Radunitsa, 1916 (rev. ed. 1918)
    - All Souls' Day (translated by Jessie Davies, 1991)
  • Isus Mladenets, 1918 (rev. ed. 1921)
  • Goluben', 1918 (rev. ed. 1920)
    - Azure (translated by Jessie Davies, 1991) / The Azur (in The Collected Poems of Yesenin, translated by Gregory Brengauz, 2000)
  • Preobrazhenie: Stikhotvoreniia, 1918 (rev. ed. 1921)
    - Transfiguration (in The Collected Poems of Yesenin, translated by Gregory Brengauz, 2000)
  • Sel'skii chasoslov: Poemy, 1918
  • Treriadnitsa, 1920 (rev. ed. 1921)
  • Triptikh: Poemy, 1920
  • Kliuchi Marii, 1920
  • Ispoved' khuligana, 1921
    - Confessions of a Hooligan  (translated by Geoffrey Thurley, 1973) / Confession of a Hoologan (in The Complete Poetical Works of Yesenin, translated by Victoria Bul, 2008) / Hooligan's Confession (in The Collected Poems of Yesenin, translated by Gregory Brengauz, 2000)
  • Izbrannoe, 1922
  • Pugachov, 1922
    - Pugachev (in The Collected Poems of Yesenin, translated by Gregory Brengauz, 2000; The Complete Poetical Works of Yesenin, translated by Victoria Bul, 2008)
  • Sobranie stikhov i poem: tom pervyi, 1922
  • Stikhi skandalista, 1923 (Scandalous Poems)
  • Stikhi (1920-24), 1924
  • Moskva kabatskaia, 1924 (Tavern Moscow)
  • Rus' Sovetskaia: Stikhi, 1925
  • Strana Sovetskaia, 1925
    - Letter to My Mother (in The Complete Poetical Works of Yesenin, translated by Victoria Bul, 2008)
  • Pesn' o velikom pokhode, 1925
  • O Rossii i revoliutsii, 1925
  • Persidskie motivy, 1925
    - The Persian Motives (in The Complete Poetical Works of Yesenin, translated by Victoria Bul, 2008)
  • Berezovyi sitets, 1925
  • Izbrannye stikhi, 1925
  • Sobrarie stikhotvorenii, 1926 (vols. 1-3)
  • Stikhi i proza, 1927 (vols. 1-4)
  • Stikhotvoreniia, 1934
  • Izbrannoe, 1946
  • Izbrannye proizvedeniia, 1946 (2 vols.)
  • Stikhotvoreniia, 1953 (ed. by P.I. Chagina)
  • Sochineniia, 1955 (2 vols.)
  • Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 1956 (ed. by A. L. Dymshitsa)
  • Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 1957 (ed. by V.M. Inber et al.)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1961-62 (5 vols.)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1966-68 (5 vols., ed. by G.I. Vladykina)
  • Poems by Esenin, 1970 (translated by Charles Brasch and Peter Soskice)
  • Confessions of a Hooligan, 1973 (translated by Geoffrey Thurley)
  • Anna Snegina: Poema, lirika, 1974
    -
     Anna Snegina (in The Complete Poetical Works of Yesenin, translated by Victoria Bul, 2008)
  • Sobranie socninenii, 1977-80 (6 vols., ed. by V.G. Bazanova  et al.)
  • Selected Poems, 1979 (translated by Jessie Davies)
  • Izbrannye stikhotvoreniia i poemy / Selected Poetry, 1982 (translated by Peter Tempest)
  • Polnoe sobranie sochinenii: v semi tomakh, 1995-2002 (7 vols., eds. IUrii L'vovich Prokushev; L D Gromova; et al.)
  • Sergei Esenin v stikhakh i zhizni, 1995 (4 vols., ed. N.I. Shubnikovoi-Gusevoi)
  • The Collected Poems of Yesenin, 2000 (translated by Gregory Brengauz)
  • Razbitoe zerkalo: izbrannye stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 2007 (ed. by K.M. Azadovskim, illustrated by Valeriia Babanova)
  • The Complete Poetical Works of Yesenin, 2008 (translation, introduction, and biography by Victoria Bul; edited by Alice Adams)
  • Yesenin: The Selected, 2010 (translated by Yuri Stepanenko)

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